Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Marriage of True Minds (more fun than a swimming pool full of lobsters)


The PW review of The Marriage of True Minds, Stephen Evans' quirky (and quixotic...and quick) debut novel caught my eye because I'm starting a memoir project with a lawyer who used to share a practice with her attorney ex-husband. A lawyer's life is embroiled in conflict as a matter of course, so two lawyers who deserve each other, for better or worse...it's fertile ground. Evans ran with that dynamic, casting two passionate, engaging characters into the scenario, providing them with pitch-perfectly audible Noel Coward dialogue, which is what really makes this book work for me -- the author gives good banter. Even when actions are over the top, the talk rings true. I read it on the red-eye from Houston to LA last week, and it was well-worth the lost sleep.

From the press kit:
The story of a crossed love that is star to every wandering bark. Together as husband and wife, Nick Ward and Lena Grant ran a successful boutique law firm in Minneapolis, vanquishing all their legal foes side by side. When Nick's charming erratic behavior finally became too much for Lena, the marriage and the partnership ended. But-like C.K. Dexter Haven and Tracy Lord-Lena and Nick just can't quite separate. Lena works out fiercely, keeps her dates with the boring and conventional Preston Winter, and daily battles on against corporate greed. But Nick's not doing so well. Still brilliant and devilishly clever, he is now also almost crazy. He is prone to fantasy and the big gesture, and he engages frantically in guerrilla activism for the sake of animals wild and domestic. Nick doesn't make plans; he has visions. And eventually his antics put him back into Lena's hands. While she tries to navigate the legal waters into which he's thrown them, Nick veers out of her wake and into the midst of a strange set of companions, including Oscar, his psychiatric attendant and Action Comics collector; Ralph and Alice Wilson, the rebellious managers of the city animal shelter; and an aging Russian hound named Wolfram. Often laugh-out-loud funny, with bright wit and brilliant machine-gun dialogue, The Marriage of True Minds sweetly explores modern love, undying idealism, and one cracked partnership that can't be sundered-from without or from within.

The buzz:
“Stephen Evans’ first novel, A Marriage of True Minds, is a funny, poignant, oddly beautiful book about three divergent life forms—animals, people, and lawyers. You will love it if you read it with a true mind.”—Kinky Friedman

“Evans demonstrates his playwright's mastery of dialogue and tension in his accomplished and whimsical first novel...”—Publishers Weekly

"Poignant and outrageous, moving and profound, Evans' delectable novel thrums with zesty dialogue and a memorably zany cast of irresistible characters."—Booklist

Check it out. The Marriage of True Minds is very funny, a fast read, and an all-around delicious little book that reaffirmed my belief in love, marriage, and the redeeming value of going off the deep end. The rightest words ever spoken between husband and wife are built beautifully into, yes, a balcony scene. After Nick climbs to Lena, reciting the Shakespeare sonnet from which the book takes its name, she says...
"Every time the phone rings, my first thought is that someone has found you somewhere, dead. My first thought. Every time."

Nick looked up at her. She stood just inside the doorway. The interior light flickered, revealing and concealing her silhouette.

"Is that a good thought or a bad thought?" he asked.

"Yes," she answered and vanished inside.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Don't let the door hit you on the way out.


One of the most virulent self-sabotaging viruses with which I inject myself is this compulsion to post-mortem meetings, parties, and conversations with my agent, editors, and memoir clients. Did I say the right thing? Did I talk too much? Did I sound too Southern? Southern enough? Was I supposed to eat the broccoli florets or were they a garnish? Should I email the hostess and explain that thing I said about not liking cats because what if she used to have a cat to which she was particularly attached and it was hit by a car driven by some jackass compassionless writer who boorishly eats garnishes and says whatever pops into her head at cocktail parties?

As a writer by profession and a hermit by nature, I've come to accept the fact that I am socially retarded. I try to mitigate by not drinking alcohol at parties or lunches. (So much healthier to drink alone late at night with only dogs to witness my pathetique.) I don't try to fake a more Midwestern accent or try to fake anything, in fact. I lack the organizational skills and short term memory to be successfully full of crap. I have to be myself, for better or worse, and then I have to go home, taking comfort in the simple fact that no one cares about me.

Truly, they don't. It's liberating. My presence in that office, restaurant, or professionally lit pool area has nothing to do with amusing anecdotes about my kids and everything to do with the market value of my skill. As long as I don't fall in the pool or set a parking valet on fire, I'll be remembered only by those who asked for my card -- and only a few of those will remember why they asked for it. And only a few of those will feel the need to follow up. (My follow up consists of "thank yous" only. It's important to me to avoid any whiff of hanger on; I let them come to me.) One lesson I'm still learning: when to go and when to stay home.

I was at a seriously star-studded party in LA last week, and I didn't fall in the pool or set anyone on fire, but on my way home, I felt rotten about it. I'm not going to any more of these things. In my post-mortem obsessing, I decided I probably did more networking than was kosher at a purely social function, and now I'm worried that the hugs and happiness with which I left my client after the final read-through of her manuscript are tainted by this image of some opportunist clumsily mingling in a halter dress and heels.

A few years back, I did a book with the mom of Tour de France wunderkind Lance Armstrong, and as luck would have it, Gary and I were in France that July, spelunking around the art caves in Dordogne. We caught up with le Tour in Besancon and watched Lance blaze the final time trial. His mom had hooked us up with passes to the VIP section in Paris, where she was going to be chilling with Sheryl Crow, Robin Williams, and that set.

As we stood in line at the airport, preparing to check in for our flight from Geneve to Paris, Gary and I looked at each other and just went...nah. We'd had so much fun on this trip, we didn't want it to end.

"We should go," said Gary. "I mean...if you really need to be there. For the book."

"I got everything I needed at the time trial," I shrugged. "There really isn't any reason for me to be there other than..." I didn't know how to complete the sentence. "Networking" maybe, but isn't that just a nice word for "sucking up"?

So instead of drinking champagne with the rich and famous in Paris, we spent the afternoon at an outdoor bar in Geneve, drinking beer and watching the final leg of le Tour on a Jumbotron, stupid in love after twenty-some years together, talking, laughing, totally enjoying each other. One of the reasons I hated that perfectly lovely party (full of perfectly nice people) last week was that it took place on Gary's birthday, and I spent the whole night wishing I was home in Houston, drinking beer and playing Scrabble with my old man.

Hollywood's a nice place to visit, but as the saying goes, I wouldn't want to live there. The tricky part is knowing when to leave.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Katrina and Katy Reckdahl: a writer becomes the story



In the midst of Hurricane Katrina, Katy Reckdahl was at her most creative -- having a baby in a New Orleans hospital. Here she talks about her experience and the book City Adrift.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Back to the salt mine! (a few thoughts on the workaday world)

My son is starting a new job today, operating a roller coaster. (Must...avoid...rim shot...aaagh!) A lot of ups and downs, all right? There! I said it!

The pay is lousy, but he has free passes to the amusement park, and any time he complains about the heat or the feet, I'll remind him that his grandfather once had a job baling cock roaches, then launch into lecture #1432: "Mom's Checkered Employment History." By the time I was 25, I'd been employed as a doo wop singer, dishwasher, answering service operator, funeral home receptionist, butcher, baker, candlestick maker--you name it. As a recovering theatre major I had to grab a paycheck wherever I could, but those odd jobs blessed me with more than money. In fact, the lowest paying positions were often the most enriching.

Working the bar rush shift at the Embers Restaurant instilled a lifelong respect for those who serve and taught me the difference between humility and humiliation. Even at fifteen I recognized that serving the drunks in the corner booth was more dignified than being one.

The following summer, I worked at the Deltronics factory. As my hands evolved from soft to sore to strong, I began to understand how real life textures a person. The assembly line became a ballet, and the women around me started to look more wise than weary.

Every grocery checker knows that need is the common denominator that levels us all. Two famous athletes occasionally came through my line; so did single moms on food stamps. As a purveyor of life's staples, I came face to face with folks from both sides of the tracks, all needing--and all entitled to--the same things: sustenance, courtesy, and the occasional Snickers bar.

Performing with the Vigilante Players and other theatre companies taught me to dodge slings and arrows. The same critic who praised my "comedic genius" in one show, compared me to "a lumbering wapiti" four months later. On the flip side, a reviewer who trashed my first novel was later employed by my publisher as a copy writer and forced to write glowing propaganda--a veritable Joni-palooza--for the dust jacket of my third book. I've been purposefully ignoring the monkey chorus ever since. If you buy into the accolades, you get buried by the sludge.

Dispatching bull semen for Tri-State Breeders taught me more than I wanted to know about nature. Being a forest fire lookout in the Trinity Wilderness taught me a fraction of what I want to know about God. As an all-night disc jockey, I learned the power of invisibility. As Dulci the Singing Clown, I learned that people really hate singing clowns. As do dogs.

Teaching creative drama was my favorite part-time job. I don't know if kids are the clients or the product, but being a caretaker human taught me (among a thousand other things) that a moment spent giving bears greater and sweeter fruit than a decade spent in pursuit. More than any other, that gig disciplined me for self-employment, inspired me to attempt the high-diving horse trick of making a living in the arts, and brought a ministry-over-manufacturing philosophy to my professional life, making it possible for me to find joy in my work, come feast or famine. When the feast happens, I'm grateful, but I've already been blessed by the day's labor, and that's what gets me through the dry spells.

"Success is counted sweetest by those who ne'er succeed," said Emily Dickinson. But it's counted bitterest by those who never learn its true meaning. The publishing industry is littered with unhappy writers, published and unpublished. The happy writers I know embrace the journey, roller coaster ride that it is.

"We work to become," said Elbert Hubbard, "not to acquire."

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Sunday Quote: The Writer as Prostitute?


“Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for love, and then for a few close friends, and then for money.”

-- Moliere



This quote has always cracked me up, but I think it's hogwash. Because when the writer falls out of love with the process and the written word, it always shows, and eventually, folks stop paying for her favors.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Enjoy a moment in the Octopus's Garden

Because we all need to take ourselves a little less seriously on Saturday. (And don't miss the universal truth about some book critics at the tag end.)

Friday, July 25, 2008

Stripped Bare


The word "stripped" has a different meaning to the novelist than most people, with both positive and negative connotations. Allow me to elaborate.

First of all, the pressure to produce, and produce on a deadline, strips bare the author's self-defenses. Daily writing, in particular, and concentrated immersion into the story world, tears away normal inhibition and allows the writer to find deeper story, meatier characterization, and enhanced creativity. The comfortable safety zone of writing "when the muse calls" and one's schedule permits can't come close to duplicating this result.

On the eve of the book's release, the writer becomes acutely aware of his/her nakedness in print. My fourteenth release will be out this coming Tuesday, and I've been almost as nervous as I was for my first. Because like the primitive who believes that something of his soul is captured in a photo, the author knows a fragment of the inner self lies exposed and trembling within the covers of each book. Though a lot of us may pretend with don't care about reviews or sales or reader feedback, the truth is we often care too much to look (or to admit it)!

Sadly, not all copies of even the greatest masterpiece sell. In the world of the hardcover author, this means returns. But where I live, in mass-market land, the unsold paperbacks are stripped, their innards pulped, and their covers mailed back to the publisher for credit.

And that's the saddest kind of stripped there is.

But for today, I'm not worrying about any of these meanings. Today, I'm stripping excess verbiage, unnecessary scenes, and pointless descriptive passages to create a cleaner, tighter piece of fiction. It always amazed me how much clutter makes its way into a story. And how much better I feel about my naked work.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Anatomy of a headache


Within the last week or so, Colleen and I have both been laid low for a day or more by migraine headaches. I'd had them several times a year since I was a kid, then I went through chemo and went for seven years without one. The first one I had after that lovely respite felt like such a betrayal! I felt the karmic debt I'd paid during cancer treatment should function as a lifetime "Get Out of Migraine Free" card, but no. I lay on the bathroom floor weeping more from rage than pain. Because pain I could handle. I'd learned to deal with pain because...wait a minute...the vague realization came to me through the haze of searing pain:

That that is is.

My oncologist taught me something during chemo that I've since applied to migraine -- well, not relief exactly, but copiness. "Understanding and acceptance," she said, "physically defuse the body's sympathetic response to pain."

Here's the way it's explained on MedicineNet.com:
A migraine headache is a form of vascular headache. Migraine headache is caused by a combination of vasodilatation (enlargement of blood vessels) and the release of chemicals from nerve fibers that coil around the blood vessels. During a migraine attack, the temporal artery enlarges. (The temporal artery is an artery that lies on the outside of the skull just under the skin of the temple.) Enlargement of the temporal artery stretches the nerves that coil around the artery and causes the nerves to release chemicals. The chemicals cause inflammation, pain, and further enlargement of the artery. The increasing enlargement of the artery magnifies the pain.

...The sympathetic nervous system is controls primitive responses to stress and pain, the so-called "fight or flight" response. The increased sympathetic nervous activity in the intestine causes nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Sympathetic activity also delays emptying of the stomach into the small intestine and thereby prevents oral medications from entering the intestine and being absorbed. The impaired absorption of oral medications is a common reason for the ineffectiveness of medications taken to treat migraine headaches. The increased sympathetic activity also decreases the circulation of blood, and this leads to pallor of the skin as well as cold hands and feet. The increased sympathetic activity also contributes to the sensitivity to light and sound sensitivity as well as blurred vision.

It always used to seem like my worst migraines came with the worst possible timing -- because they did! The more distressed I was about the inconvenience -- nay, injustice! -- the more agony I was in. Somehow knowing the nuts and bolts of the physiology as those reactions cascade actually is comforting for me. It's an enlarged blood vessel, not Satan's fuck-finger. There's nothing fair or unfair about it. Nothing evil or malicious. It's just a really, really bad headache.

It just is.

Accepting this helps me. The headache itself isn't less painful, but the less anger I feel, the less side- and after-effects I experience.

Now if only I could apply this zen approach to the publishing industry.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

"A Philistine blunder": the LA Times Book Review is no more


Hard to preface this with anything other than...well, this sucks. Served up lukewarm in Publishers Lunch today is a letter by former LA Times Book Review editors Steve Wasserman, Sonja Bolle, Digby Diehl, and Jack Miles responding to the news that the Los Angeles Times is folding its standalone Sunday book review section, laying off two dedicated book editors, and shlumping book reviews in with the Calendar section.

The letter asserts that without the review section, the LA Times Festival of Books will be "a hollow joke" and goes on to say:
To be sure, no section of any newspaper can remain hostage to past ways of covering the news of the day. We are convinced, however, that the way forward is to increase coverage of our literary culture -- a culture that every day is more vibrant and diverse in the thriving megalopolis of Los Angeles.

Angelenos in growing number are already choosing to cancel their subscriptions to the Sunday Times. The elimination of the Book Review, a philistine blunder that insults the cultural ambition of the city and the region, will only accelerate this process and further wound the long-term fiscal health of the newspaper.

We urge readers and writers alike to join with us as we protest this sad and backward step.

Click here to read the entire letter and post comments.

(Ow. My head...)

Fiction Prescription: Gagging the Self-Censor


Yesterday, I had this thought for my W-I-P that slapped up against a hard-and-fast "rule" I'd made for my own writing. "You can't possibly do that," I thought. "It'll be lame and hokey and... well, maybe perfect."

But the "lame-and-hokey" threat held me back, until I realized I was self-censoring. Then I did what I sometimes do when trying something that feels "risky." I created a separate file (I don't know why, but this gives my permission to try something completely different) and started fooling around with this idea in a commitment-phobic, no-strings manner.

Once I decided I had something (which took awhile; the first few attempts were flashing-neon awful) I copied and pasted the new sections into the manuscript. For now, I think they work and work well. Later, when I have a completed manuscript, I'll solicit opinions (from test readers and my editors), and either leave the sections in, edit, or remove them. But what I'm going to try hard not to do is self-censor before an idea even gets the chance to stretch its wings.

So today, I hope you'll try one thing in your writing that you would "never" do and see where it takes you. Try not to allow yourself to judge the effort or think of what anyone else might say. Just create.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Sunday Morning Quote:Kingsolver on Closing the Door

"Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer."

Barbara Kingsolver


Hear, hear!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Another great review for Colleen's Triple X


Yeah, I'd say Colleen definitely has, as stated below, gotten her groove back. Fresh Fiction stacked another great review on the soon-to-be-released (and already shipping online) Triple Exposure:
Triple Exposure is the fantastic, fast-paced romantic thriller we've come to expect from a master storyteller as talented as Colleen Thompson. She always satisfies her readers by delivering unique characters, a spellbinding plot and a passionate love affair. Triple Exposure is jam- packed with enough loop-de-loops to keep you guessing, enough sizzle to make your palms sweat and an ending you have to read to believe. You don't want to miss this one!

Publisher's Weekly chimes in:
Thompson (The Salt Maiden) packs this well-paced thriller full of twists and the local color of a small Texas town...The red herrings are exquisitely placed, and the climax will surprise even the most jaded of suspense readers.

Gofightwin Colleen!

How Colleen Got Her Groove Back


Feeling much better about life and the W-I-P yesterday and this morning. It turns out one of the best antidotes to an attack of inner critic is a little R&R. So I jettisoned my daily page count Thursday, instead read a rollicking, hilarious novel (Seth Greenland's SHINING CITY is every bit as much fun as its uber-cool video teaser implies), slept in, met critique partners for coffee and happy-yaps, shopped a little, wrote a little, cooked a bit, and watched THE CLOSER (on DVR) with the Fireman, and slept in once again.

This morning the Fireman brought me glasses, tea, and the newspaper... in bed (gotta love him) and guess what? My well has refilled. The snarled mess of a plot has untangled in my brain, and the harpy is as last quiescent.

And I cannot wait to get back to the book and make this sucker happen.

All this is not to say that I can afford to indulge myself every time the grind gets to me. But once in a while, it's just the thing to put a writer back on track.

So what do you do to get your muse's groove back when it's gone AWOL? I'm always looking for some great new tips.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Won't you be my neighbor? (Brazos Bookstore's new loyalty program)


To be truthful, I have mixed feelings about Brazos Bookstore. As a reader, I think it's Nirvana, of course. But as a hometown writer who's never been shown one speck of love by them in ten years and seven books...well, I have to say they suck like those stupid stupid boys who never asked me out in high school probably because they were intimidated by how smart I was. In any case, I have to hand it to Brazos that they do an amazing job of not only surviving but thriving while more and more independent booksellers wither and die.

So what makes Brazos different? For starters, the author events. They've trained, nurtured, and husbanded a growing audience for both big name and emerging author events. So many stores completely blow off that opportunity. Midlist novelists are an endangered species these days, and what little hope we have of survival is hinged to stores like Brazos. Their web site is a little lumpy, but it offers the opportunity to buy books online from an indie. Gotta love that.

In 2006, Brazos weathered hard times by bringing in a dozen investors at a premium of ten grand each, and -- from a distance, at least -- that appeared to really light a fire under the place. (In a good way.) Yesterday, PW reported on Brazos' new incentive program that allows people to invest (sort of) at a lesser level.

“It’s a tough business,” store manager Jane Moser told PW. “We think anyone who becomes a Friend of Brazos is getting a lot for their money. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement.”

I might be spinning that a bit differently in my own head, but I agree.

Saith PW:
Dubbed “Friends of Brazos,” annual membership starts at the $50 “Manuscript Level,” which bestows an invitation to one private author event, an evening with publishers' sales reps previewing forthcoming titles, and 20% off any in stock title four times a year. Subsequent levels, including “Paperback Level” ($150) and Hardcover Level ($500), offer more private functions, such as author dinners, and additional discounts. Membership tops out at the “First Edition Level” which costs $1,000 and offers, in addition to other benefits, a ticket to the UP Experience (a day-long seminar held in Houston in February that features featuring 20 speakers and is modeled on the TED [Technology Enterntainment Design] conference). “We can’t compete nose to nose with the chains on discounts, so we’re doing something different,” said Moser.

Asked if customers might balk at the idea of a $1,000 loyalty membership, Moser acknowledged that it might seem like a lot, “until one realizes The First Edition level is actually a bargain, considering a ticket to the UP Experience alone costs $1,000.”

Okay...but c'mon. If I consider that First Edition level membership (and I am considering it) it's not about the UP Experience ticket, for which I would not even joke about paying a thousand bucks. (I'm sorry, darlin', but come on. I don't care if it's a one day seminar at which I'm sported about on the shoulders of Chippendale dancers. That's...Come. On.) It's about joining with others to support this store because I want to do my part to create a culture in which stores like Brazos are supported.

The "Friends of Brazos" program is different from the discount memberships at B&N or Borders because it's not about saving money, it's about being in a relationship with this store. It asks people to recognize the value of books in general and indie booksellers in specific. It frustrates me that they'd even try to pitch it as some kind of Mattress Mack bargain in fiscal terms. It doesn't work on that basis. The real issue is this: Do I want to pay twice what WalMart is asking for the latest Elmore Leonard novel? No. But do I want to live in a world where WalMart has sway over decisions in the publishing industry? Hell no! That's worth a thousand bucks to me, if I can spare a thousand bucks, and if I can't, it's certainly worth the hundred-fifty.

From the author's perspective (not to mention any agent you ask), the fiction market has never been tougher. If we allow the decline of indie booksellers and small presses to continue, we consign a whole lot of novelists to a lifetime of night shifts at 7-11 -- where they'll sit reading books that bear the WalMart stamp of aproval. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Something I remember from the little induction ceremony they do in the United Methodist Church -- when you become a member, you don't have to espouse a lot of dogma. They simply ask you if you are willing to be a good neighbor and support this community of faith "with your prayers, gifts, and presence". We have to face the fact that indie bookstores need no less from us.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Gofightwin Cheno! (My homegirl is up for an Emmy!)

Gotta shout out (woooot!) to my friend, Kristin Chenoweth, who received an Emmy nomination this morning for the supporting role of Olive Snook in the wonderfully quirky dramedy series Pushing Daisies. Having spent the last few months working with Kristin on her forthcoming memoir, A Little Bit Wicked (Simon & Schuster, April 2009), I can tell you there's not a sweeter soul in Hollywood. Kristin's an amazing talent (girlfriend's got a Theatre BA and MFA in Opera Performance) and the hardest working woman I know. While you're waiting for the book, here's a little Snook:

The Inner Critic Strikes Back


As I've mentioned here before, I regularly do battle with my inner critic. The foul-mouthed, ego-eviscerating harpy won't stay vanquished but simply chews through the scold's bridle I use to silence her for a time and shrieks a chorus of "you-sucks" in my ear.

Well, she's back, clearly sensing a weak moment, with the uncertainty of a new release just around the corner and the painful, full-body slam I've just done against the wall of my latest work in progress. (Invariably, I do this at the 3/4 mark, with a deadline on the horizon. Oddly, the fact that I think every single book is an irredeemable pile of crap at this point in the writing process can't save me from sleepless nights with that damned harpy shrieking in my ear.)

Am I alone in this? I doubt it. I know a lot of authors, count many of them among my best friends, and I can't tell you how many have confided that they fight fear and self-flagellation from time to time. Comes with the territory, I'm afraid. We recognize that in each other and work to pull our buddies through the tough times, just as they do us. (Every writer needs writer buddies for expressly this purpose. Because your family and non-writing friends won't get it. Not really.)

I realize that for unpublished writers, it's a little hard to believe that an experienced novelist has this to deal with. Surely, most believe, the accomplishment of publication is enough to shut down the self-doubt. And what the other externals, positive reviews and contest victories, what about fan e-mails and good sales when they happen?

These serve as temporary balms, but in the end, the doubt is part of you, and in a weird way, it is healthy. For the tamed harpy can be the writer's ally, picking up on a project's flaws, forcing you to look at other possibilities. Unbridled, she'll tear you to shreds, but without her, you risk turning into an inflated ego float in the Parade of Publishing.

So this morning, I'm telling myself to seek the wisdom whispering through the nastiness and blow off all the other b.s. If your harpy's taunts sound stupid if you say them out loud and you suspect that even your staunchest writing allies would roll their eyes and give you the "let's not act like an orphan in the storm" look (thanks, Joni!), you know what you have to do.

Take out that scold's bridle and keep on with your work.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Driving Sideways: Jess Riley debuts with a lot of heart...and a kidney


Jess Riley's debut novel Driving Sideways was a long time coming, but when it busted out, it busted out big. Buzz has been widespread and book-club friendly. Within weeks of its release, Driving Sideways was off to a second printing.

Right away, when I visited Jess's web site, I had to love this refreshing PR bio:
Wisconsin native Jess Riley spent much of her childhood sitting at her desk during lunch hour for lying and/or passing notes during class, both of which qualified her for a possible future as a novelist. Between bad haircuts, she wrote poetry and fiction in middle school. She was nominated by a high school English teacher to attend a summer camp for budding artists and writers, where she realized she needed a whole new wardrobe. Also, she needed to work on her creative writing skills. She won her first short story contest a year later for a tale told through the point of view of a seven year-old black boy living in Cabrini Green because as a middle-class white teenager, she knew a lot about that kind of life. Jess has been a waitress, a blue cheese packager, and currently, a grant writer for local school districts. She worked at a mall-based toy store during the Tickle Me Elmo craze of 1995 and lived to tell about it. She has also worked as a teaching assistant at a medium-security men's prison, which was much less stressful. Jess graduated from UW-Oshkosh in 1998 with dual degrees in English and history. She now lives in a drafty old house in Oshkosh,Wisconsin with her husband and a neurotic dog that despises public radio.

It's been a long and winding road for Driving Sideways.

"After years of rejections for my 'trial novel' (currently undergoing major reconstructive surgery for a possible resurrection), I never thought I’d land an agent, let alone sell my book at auction," says Jess. "It was something I had fantasized about for years, and I almost gave up several times. When it happened, it happened quickly. I was nearly orphaned when my editor left our original acquiring house (HarperCollins) for Random House in summer of 2006. I was fortunate enough to go with her, which doesn’t always happen. Though it pushed my book’s release back one year, I am thrilled to be able to stay with the editor who 'gets' me and my book."

Asked what hard-earned wisdom she might share with aspiring authors, Jess says, "Number one: Don’t quit writing. Ever. Write for yourself first, but if your agent or editor has suggestions, heed them. Be professional. Read and support other authors. Hone your craft—there is always something to learn and improve upon." Last but not least, she adds, "They mean it when they say they want a 'fresh hook.'"

The fresh hook in Driving Sideways is a heartfelt and surprisingly funny exploration "Cellular Memory": Is it possible for our organs to retain our energy if donated to another person? Can we really channel someone else’s tastes in music, food, or hobbies? And what happens if you’ve had a transplant and simply convince yourself this is true?

From the press kit:
Driving Sideways tells the story of Leigh Fielding, a twenty-eight year-old kidney transplant recipient who—six years, hundreds of dialysis sessions, and a million bad poems after being diagnosed with Polycystic Kidney Disease—finally feels strong enough to pursue a few lofty goals she’s been mulling for years: find herself, her kidney donor’s family, and the mother that abandoned her over twenty years ago.

And what better way to do just that than a solitary road trip across the country? Well, maybe not entirely solitary, because Leigh suspects she may have inherited more than just an organ from her deceased donor. It’s this sneaking suspicion that takes her trip down some unexpected detours—and the juvenile delinquent who blackmails Leigh into giving her a ride is only the beginning.

Booklist says: “Smart and funny without being forced, sentimental without being maudlin, Riley’s funny, picaresque vision of America will make readers wish they could go along with Leigh on her next trip.”

Marian Keyes, bestselling author of Anybody Out There?: "Driving Sideways is a gorgeous novel -- I LOVED it! It's enjoyable, uplifting, and so so so funny and sparky. I found it hugely entertaining and very touching. Jess Riley's voice is irreverent and wonderful, and her writing is genius."

Driving Sideways was one of eight finalists selected from over 600 applicants in the 2005 James Jones First Novel Fellowship and has been tagged as "Break-out Book" by Target. And this is just the beginning. Try to keep up with Jess on her blog.

Go, Jess, go!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Outsider's On-Ramp to Publication


Once upon a time, I was a writer like most writers learning my craft in a vacuum. I put in the sweat equity, wrote a ton of pages, even read a lot. But I had no clue how my work fit with the market. When I worked up my nerve to submit things, the form rejection slips came.

Later, I started attending writer's workshops and the occasional small conference. I entered and did well in contests. I began to focus my reading a little more in my chosen genre (fantasy at the time, then young adult), but I still had no idea about such rudimentary things as how long a manuscript should be, who was buying what, etc. At this point, I received more personalized rejections and even hooked up with a reputable agent. But still, I couldn't sell.

Finally, at one local conference, I listened to a couple of romance author speakers, along with a romance editor. They all seemed to know so much about the realities of publishing that I was incredibly impressed, and mind you, I went to the sessions with a built-in bias against romance. But their words lodged in my brain, and when I later had what I thought might be a great idea for a historical romance, I set about learning all I could about the genre from an outsider's standpoint.

This attitude adjustment turned out to be the difference for me. Here's what I did:

1. Asked a couple of romance reading friends to recommend and/or loan me their favorites in the genre. This is where I learned to really respect that good writing is good writing, regardless of the genre. I fell in love with the work of Lavyrle Spencer, Mary Jo Putney, and Julie Garwood, and they became role models, those my historical voice sounded far different than any of theirs.

2. Haunted bookstores with a pad and paper. Took up residence in front of the romance shelves and made many, many notes on new books being published, which publishers were putting them out, and tried to imagine where my in-progress manuscript fit in all this. Online booksellers have made this task a lot easier, but there's something about going to a brick and mortar bookstore and paying attention to how the shelves are stocked and arranged that gives you a more realistic, hype-free view.

3. Zeroed in on newer authors. I paid special attention to the newest books and bought and devoured as many as I could. Certain publishers, I noticed, seemed to buy more new authors, so I researched these publishers in Writer's Marketplace and on the web. Later, I found Romantic Times Magazine, which gave me a quick monthly roundup of what's being published each month. I pored over the brief synopsis of each book in my then-sub-genre and tried to imagine how mine might fit it.

4. Joined the leading genre organization, Romance Writers of America, whose monthly magazine, The Romance Writer's Report, contains a treasure trove of information on who's buying what and which agents are looking to represent romance. This information is now available online to members, and it's well worth the annual cost of dues. There are many other wonderful genre-specific groups out there; I suggest you join one and take advantage of the opportunities.

5. Asked more experienced writers in the field a lot of basic questions. For instance, how long should a novel manuscript be. (This varies dramatically by genre and how you're calculating. It's also gotten shorter since I've started, mainly due to rising production costs.) I also learned that a synopsis is a present-tense (I don't know why, when my books are in past, but that's the way they're written) brief (agent and editor exceptations on length vary) encapsulation of the entire story and that everyone hates writing them but you have to do it anyway.

6. Submitted my work before absorbing too many of the genre regulars' rules and biases. If I'd known or listened to all of the conventional wisdom about what sells, I never would have bothered submitting what became my first novel. It was different, a weird mix of "rule-breaking" leavened with just enough marketing-hook savvy to make it appeal first to an agent and later to an editor, both of whom loved the originality of the story and voice. Coming to the party as an outsider who'd written other-genre novel manuscripts, play scripts, short stories, and poety and who read across the genres (still do) made my work different enough to rise above many aspiring authors who were genre purists.

Whether you're a newcomer to the party or a bigtime fan looking for a fresh perspective, I hope you'll find some of these tips helpful.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Gimme some sugar (Hilary Liftin on love and Junior Mints)


I've been on a quest to find other writers doing the celebrity memoir thing. Networking, and all that. But also just curious. Currently kicking butt on the NYT bestseller list is the new Tori Spelling book, co-authored by Hilary Liftin, who got started the same way I did -- writing her own memoir. Hilary's Candy and Me was called "lovely and lyrical" by Vanity Fair. USA Today said "delightful; a hilarious, counterintuitive romp through stacks of Necco Wafers, Smarties, Snickers and Jelly Bellies."

"Hilary Liftin’s lifelong love affair with candy shapes all her relationships," saith the PR, "from her family and friends to her ultimate choice of a mate. Through life’s ups and downs, candy is a constant that sustains her. In Candy and Me, her life unfolds in a series of bittersweet revelations and restorative meditations—from a forgettable fling with Skittles to a mature, committed relationship with Bottle Caps."

Here's a bit of Hilary's homage to Junior Mints:
The summer before I went to college, my former camp counselor Finn called drunk from a bar, announced that he had broken up with his fiancee, and wondered if he could see me. I was staying with my parents in New York City, working a miserable administrative job for a law firm in the World Trade Center. They put me in a windowless file room, sorting, papers on a pro bono case. Every day I would buy a box of Junior Mints for lunch-dessert and eat them all as I read Love in the Time of Cholera. Sometimes I would lock the door of the file room and read into the afternoon. If any of the lawyers came down to look for a file or to check on me, I would tell them that I was afraid to be alone in that deserted part of the office. Their faces said that the room reeked of sugar and deceit.

The night that Finn visited conveniently happened to be the only night of the summer that my parents were out of town. It was also the night before my last day of work.

Gobble down the rest of "Junior Mints" here on Hilary's web site while you wait for the book to come in on order at your local bookstore.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Sunday Quote:Lewis on Originality


"Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it."

-- C. S. Lewis (1898 - 1963)

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Holding Back


Not so long ago, I had an interesting conversation with my agent regarding beginning an interconnected series as opposed to reinventing the universe with each stand-alone novel. For the record, I prefer the stand-alone, with perhaps the occasional cameo from a prior, often secondary character, but I was tempted to veer from the plan and work on a true series. She gave me some advice that really resonated for me.

Don't ever start out to write a series, she said. When writers do that, I find they tend to hold back, saving the good stuff for the future books. The problem is, there won't be any future books if you don't pour every ounce of energy, every good idea, into what you're writing. If readers respond, you can always find some way to continue. But if readers shrug their shoulders and move onto the next book, your "series" is already done before its started.
So as you settle in to work this week, ask yourself, am I holding too tightly to the reins of my imagination? Am I "saving" my plot's horsepower for something in the future? If the answer's yes, try turning loose and urging the story to a gallop.

Tomorrow, I will wager, your imagination will lead out a fresh, new horse for you to ride.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Revisiting Aristotle on the art of plot (your continuing education credit for today)


During a running dialogue on the difference between the crafting of a novel and the crafting of a screenplay (which are really not as different as I thought), a friend reminded me that Aristotle laid down some very simple rules about plot in his Poetics. I remembered studying Poetics in college as a theatre major because much of it is taken up with the idea of imitation and drama, but revisiting Aristotle last night as a world-weary novelist a whole lot of years away from my idealistic artiste theatre days -- well, it rang bells all over the place.

"There should be copies on your desk and your night table and another one in your glove compartment," said my friend. "He wrote down what the rules of drama are. If something isn't working in a script, chances are it's because you're breaking one of those rules without realizing it. Figure out how you're breaking the rule and you can get the car moving again."

Quoth Aristotle:
The plot, then, is the first principle, and, as it were, the soul of a tragedy; Character holds the second place. A similar fact is seen in painting. The most beautiful colors, laid on confusedly, will not give as much pleasure as the chalk outline of a portrait...

These principles being established, let us now discuss the proper structure of the Plot, since this is the first and most important thing in Tragedy.

Now, according to our definition Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is complete, and whole, and of a certain magnitude; for there may be a whole that is wanting in magnitude. A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end. A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be. An end, on the contrary, is that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it. A middle is that which follows something as some other thing follows it. A well constructed plot, therefore, must neither begin nor end at haphazard, but conform to these principles.

Again, a beautiful object, whether it be a living organism or any whole composed of parts, must not only have an orderly arrangement of parts, but must also be of a certain magnitude; for beauty depends on magnitude and order. Hence a very small animal organism cannot be beautiful; for the view of it is confused, the object being seen in an almost imperceptible moment of time. Nor, again, can one of vast size be beautiful; for as the eye cannot take it all in at once, the unity and sense of the whole is lost for the spectator; as for instance if there were one a thousand miles long. As, therefore, in the case of animate bodies and organisms a certain magnitude is necessary, and a magnitude which may be easily embraced in one view; so in the plot, a certain length is necessary, and a length which can be easily embraced by the memory. The limit of length in relation to dramatic competition and sensuous presentment is no part of artistic theory. For had it been the rule for a hundred tragedies to compete together, the performance would have been regulated by the water-clock- as indeed we are told was formerly done. But the limit as fixed by the nature of the drama itself is this: the greater the length, the more beautiful will the piece be by reason of its size, provided that the whole be perspicuous. And to define the matter roughly, we may say that the proper magnitude is comprised within such limits, that the sequence of events, according to the law of probability or necessity, will admit of a change from bad fortune to good, or from good fortune to bad.

Click here to read Aristotle's complete Poetics courtesy of the MIT archives. C'mon. It's a quick read, and it'll make you feel almost as smart as an 18-year-old college kid.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Trusting the Magic


I've been forging ahead on a contracted novel lately even though I've known it's missing a key element, some critical bit of backstory that forms a linchpin needed to hold the whole darned book together. A while back, this would have stopped me dead, and I have to admit that even now, it's still bugged me because no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't come up with anything that "felt" right. Nothing even close, and as the pages began to mount up, I started to get this sinking feeling that I'd reach the end and still not be able to come up with an answer that felt just out of reach, like one of those maddening words on the tip of the tongue.

But I have this deadline looming, so I kept forging ahead because I've learned to trust the magic that lets me write a book without really understanding how. I've learned to trust in the mystery of good ideas, which come from heaven only knows where. I'm afraid if I ever looked into the process too closely, I'd be carving up the goose of my subconscious, and no more golden eggs would be forthcoming.

Today, that old goose grunted out a nice one, and I'm grateful for the gift, even if I don't quite get the mechanism. But something tells me it never would have happened had I quit working and sat around waiting for the inspiration to strike, that the sweat of my brow lubed Ms. Goose's innards and got the magic working.

So if you're stuck today, keep moving. You never know what little treasures your efforts may shake loose.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

"Nobody knows anything" and other true stuff said by William Goldman


I'm reading Adventures in the Screen Trade by novelist/screenwriter William Goldman, who wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, among other things.

Among the very true things he says:
“Writing is finally about one thing: going into a room alone and doing it. Putting words on paper that have never been there in quite that way before. And although you are physically by yourself, the haunting Demon never leaves you, that Demon being the knowledge of your own terrible limitations, your hopeless inadequacy, the impossibility of ever getting it right. No matter how diamond-bright your ideas are dancing in your brain, on paper they are earthbound.”

Monday, July 07, 2008

Selling It Starts Here



This past Saturday as part of a session designed to help aspiring authors become more comfortable with the idea, I "played" an acquiring N.Y. editor and took book pitches at my local writers' group. My "character" was a twenty-something (somebody shouted "Makeup!" Smartass) editorial assistant eager to find new talent for (and raise herself above the bottom employment rung of) a large publisher of popular mass market paperback fiction. She was bright, motivated, nervous about hurting anybody's feelings (it was her first time hearing pitches), and a little freaked to realize she was younger (it's called *acting,* people) than any of the writers. A nice person, she was eager to help those pitching, which is a quality I've found in many of the editors I've met in pitch sessions.

But she needed help from those writers she was meeting. She needed ammunition she could take back to the scary senior editor and the marketing department to help sell them on the writers' book (*if* she falls in love with one, after reading the requested material). This also goes for manuscripts she "discovers" on the slush pile or in an agent's submission.

So what kind of ammunition does our theoretically-young editor need to sell the publishing house on a project? Bear with me for a moment.

Imagine yourself walking into your local independent or chain bookstore with a parent or a spouse or a sibling or a long-lost friend and proudly walking that significant person to the shelf that holds several copies of your brand new, published book. While you're basking in the warm glow of your loved one's ooohs and aaahs, take a moment to look up at the sign marking the section of the bookstore where your baby's shelved.

Where are you?

Since you're good at using your imagination (otherwise, you wouldn't be a writer, right?), now shrink yourself down to to fly-size and secretly watch shoppers visiting that same bookstore and others. Who is picking up your book and looking at its cover? Turning it over to read the copy on the back? What other books does this person have in hand? What other established authors is the customer most likely to be reading?

Again, where are you in the stack?

It's important -- critically important -- to communicate quickly and clearly, whether in a pitch session or a query letter -- where your proposed book will be shelved in the stores. Is it a mystery? Suspense? Romance? Science fiction? Or can you better picture it with the memoirs or in the fiction/literature section or elsewhere? Which popular authors would appeal to the same readers you're hoping to attract? This doesn't mean you write exactly like them (unless you bring something special to the table, you probably won't sell), but it's a starting place for the publisher's marketing department and sales force to get your book into the hands of the right readers.

And without this starting point, your submission is in trouble.

Here are some examples of pitches or queries that will immediately get an acquiring editor or agent on a selling wavelength:

"My contemporary romance, NEUTERING TIGERS WITH TEASPOONS, is a sexy, humorous love story featuring a jilted veterinarian who runs away to join the circus and the handsome big cat trainer who might just be the key to taming her cynical outlook. I think fans of Rachel Gibson and Jennifer Crusie would enjoy this story."

"SPATTER PATTERNS is a suspense novel featuring a pharmaceutical salesmen who returns home from a business trip to find the wife and child he loves missing, with the only clue splattered bloodstains that lead police to think he's brutally killed them. On the run and desperate to find his loved ones, Joe Blow finds even more evidence pointing his way -- and a connection leading straight back to his big drug company employer. This is a regular-guy-in-way-over-his-head story, somewhat reminiscent of the suspense of Harlan Coben and Dean Koontz."

And if you're in a pitch session, after saying this (and spewing any writing credentials you may have), just sit back and allow the editor/agent to ask the questions. A give and take discussion is far more engaging than listening to writer after writer read at warp speed off a sheet for the whole time.

I hope this is helpful. Anyone have any other pitching tips to share?

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Joni's Sunday sermon: God loved me enough to lock me in a bathroom in the Hollywood Hills.


My life has been excessively strange lately. In the course of working my memoir guru mojo for a truly delightful client, I’ve made the acquaintance of an important (iconic, really) writer/producer who has for some odd reason decided that we should be friends. He’s one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. Generous, kind, whipsaw funny, scary smart. (He’s also endearingly geeky. Friday night, while the fireworks were going on, he wanted to tell us about the little known history of the Declaration of Independence, and tragically, I was geeky enough to want to hear it.)

I enjoy conversing with him, but his famousness is weird. Distracting. Intimidating. Every time I say his name, I’m reminded that he’s this intimidating famous guy, so I’ve taken to calling him “Studs Mulligan”.

Friday, since the 4th was my client's only day off this millennium, Mulligan hosted the final read-through of the manuscript at his place – an ultra-moderne but not grossly huge house on a hill overlooking LA. It’s the squarest, hippest, whitest, cleanest house I’ve ever been in. The sparse bachelor pad furnishings are complimented with typical mega-star knick-knacks, my favorite being a Gibson Les Paul autographed by Amie Mann.

My client, her assistant, my daughter (who’s been working as my assistant), and I arrived at noon to find the kitchen stocked with beverages, treats, and a deli-catered lunch spread. I distributed manuscripts, and I’d had one printed for Mulligan, but he respectfully withdrew to his office, wanting to give my client the time and space she needed to speak freely.

During the first six hours of reading and notes, he joined us only when invited to hear one particular chapter or another. (He’s filled in major gaps in my understanding of the world of television, and I wanted him to reality check me on those chapters.) My client, a boundless ball of energy, wanted to blaze on to the end, and even though I’d been working without stop since 4 AM in order to have the manuscripts ready, I was prepared to accommodate her. We both insisted we were good to go, but Mulligan gently insisted we take a 30 minute break. My client and the girls went for a swim. I went to a chaise in a shady corner and was asleep about three seconds later. At the end of the 30 minutes, my daughter woke me up, and I went to take a quick whiz before resuming the read-through.

The nearest of the five bathrooms in Mulligan’s house is just off the space age kitchen. I went in and locked the door, and for some reason found myself utterly unable to pee. Something about the square fixtures, the shininess of the hardware, or the whiteness of everything – I don’t know. It’s ridiculous. I just suddenly realized I was about to be bare-assed on the john in this incredibly famous dude’s house. I’d been drinking one water bottle after another. For six hours. I seriously needed to pee. I turned on the water in the Star Trekish sink to see if that would help.

No. Couldn’t do it.

I finally decided the best thing for me to do would be to go out and say that I’d forgotten something at my hotel, which was only five minutes away. I’d run over there, use the comfortably middle class facility, dash back to Mulligan’s, and continue the read-through without consuming another drop of liquid. I hitched up my jeans, rinsed my hands, and wiped them on my pants rather than touch the pristine white towels. But when I tried to open the door…

It wouldn’t open.

I clicked the little space age locky deal in and out a couple times. Bent down and gandered at the chrome knob. All I saw was my own sheepish face reflecting back at me. I squinted at the locking mechanism, which was like a skinny little pin. I pulled at it, and heard a small click. Breathing a sigh of relief, I turned the knob. The door did not open. The little lock pin, which probably cost more than my car, plinked onto the floor like a bullet casing.

“Shit!” said my reflection, and I agreed.

I heard my daughter’s voice in the kitchen, and I hissed her name a few times, but she drifted back out to the lanai, laughing with my client’s assistant. I jiggled and toggled and worked at the door knob for what seemed like a very long time. Then I started laughing, and then I realized there was no way I was going to make it back to my hotel to pee even if I were to get the dang door open and sprint for the rental car this very second.

The ridiculousness of it! For crying out loud.

I dropped trou, took care of whiz biz, washed my hands, and dried them on the towel hospitably offered for that purpose. I decided that before I swallowed what was left of my dignity and started yelling for help, I'd give the door knob one more try. Click. The door opened as easy as you please.

Back out on the lanai, I set the lock pin on the table next to Mulligan's hand.

“I broke your house,” I said. “Sorry about that.”

“Nah, it does that. You have to kinda go like crr-chk-a-chkk.” He demonstrated with sound effects. “Use the one off the music room.”

My client and I read on while he went out and fetched Italian food. I read to the table while everyone else ate, then Mulligan took a chapter while I ate. I resumed reading to the end, which left my client in tears.

With the task of the book behind me (other than a few small clean-up items), I’m thinking ahead to my next project. When Mulligan suggested I should “come over to the dark side” and try screenwriting, I said, “That’s just not my world. I’m a book person.” But this morning, I woke up wondering why I’ve set such arbitrary (and stupid) boundaries in my life. Some destuctive little part of me is telling me I’m out of my league. It’s singing that old bluegrass song, “Don’t Git Above Your Raisin’”.

Getting locked in that bathroom was a blessing. It slapped a leash on me just as I was about to take flight, which would have been an idiotic waste of time in the middle of a hardworking day. And it would have reinforced the utterly wrong idea that I could not function on the most basic level in what was, for this day at least, my workplace. Nothing about Mulligan’s house – or Mulligan himself – could have possibly been more welcoming. The only thing telling me I didn’t belong there was my own insecurity. I don’t have time for that crap. (No pun intended.) I need to be able to function comfortably wherever my work is. That means being able to use a hole-in-the-ground outhouse in rural France or a Frank Lloyd Wright toiletron in Hollywood as unfussily as I use the loo off my own kitchen (which is, by the way, wallpapered with pages from my first novel).

I can’t describe what it meant to me to have someone understand and honor the emotional journey of this book. It’s possible that Mulligan was just trying to score points with my client, whom he adores with schoolboy blue devotion, but whatever his motives, the experience was wonderful for me. Finishing a book is a big deal. I’ve always felt a bit of an ache as I honor that alone. This is the first time the celebration was even close to being in balance with the enormity of the journey.

After I read the final chapter, Mulligan poured wine, raised a toast to my client and I, and gave us both roses. Then we all sat around the fire pit shooting the bull. Lively conversation covered everything from Cyrano de Bergerac to Barak Obama. Watching the far off fireworks, I felt that click that tells you you’re in the right place at the right time doing the right thing.

The world I belong in is writing. Everywhere it takes me is home.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Friday, July 04, 2008

BtO Rewind: Four for the Fourth


Though this was first posted on 7/04/2007, I think it bears repeating:

On the Fourth of July, it seems appropriate to say Happy Birthday, USA, and to list four reasons I'm grateful, not only as a human being but as a writer, to live in this country.

1. Creativity is valued. From Hollywood to Nashville to New York, writers are valued for, if nothing else, their contribution to commerce. Whether the world loves or hates this country, its contribution to entertainment can't be denied.
2. By and large, the government leaves writers alone. There's no hit squad that shows up at your door after midnight and drags you off, never to be seen again, if you're critical of the regime du jour. No religious police will have you stoned or branded or run you out of the country should your work be deemed "sinful".
3. America gets the power of a dream. We're a nation that takes its dreamers more seriously than most, a country that understands that no matter a person's gender, race, religion, age, or disability, he or she still has the potential to come up with a brilliant idea.
4. Despite the emphasis on the commercial, the purely artistic flourishes. Popular books and movies rule the marketplace, but America's big enough and broad-minded enough to embrace worthwhile forms with smaller audiences, from small-stage plays to poetry readings to poetry slams. People of like interests come together to make art and share art. And with very few exceptions, no one has any say in what we read/watch/enjoy.

Most recently, I was reminded of our freedoms as I read Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, by Azar Nifisi. It made me appreciate what I have -- and appreciate the founding fathers (and mothers!) who struggled to establish a nation where "the pursuit of happiness" is far more than an empty phrase.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Frightening, Schmightening


One of the things that cracks me up about writing scary romantic suspense is that some people have started to think *I'm* personally pretty frightening. Sure, I tend to imagine heads rolling about in trunks, look at every new piece of hardware I encounter as a potential murder weapon, and devise a lot of foul demises, but in reality I'm a super-caffeinated bunny of a wimpster who's scared to watch the evening news for few of nightmares. My fears don't end there, either, but include such things as falling/downhill skiiing (for me, these amount to the same thing anyhow), large crowds, dancing in public, and waking up to find the Burger King's creepy plastic face looking down at me. (Freaks me out just thinking about that!) Probably, I'm able to scare others *because* I can easily imagine and describe my fears in vivid detail and not because I'm immune to chill-bumps.

My main man Alfred Hitchcock put it this way:

My good luck in life was to be a really frightened person. I'm fortunate to be a coward, to have a low threshold of fear, because a hero couldn't make a good suspense film.


He also said, "The only way to get rid of my fears is to make films about them."

So maybe what I'm doing is exorcising my own devils, one by one by one.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Summer Gadget Alert: Targus Chill Pad



I'm one of those folks who's most comfortable working with my laptop computer on my lap instead of a hard surface, but after a while, the heat gets to me, especially in Houston's sweltering summers. So lately, I've taken to using the Targus Chill Pad, which plugs into a USB port and runs two bitty fans beneath the computer. It's light-weight plastic (i.e. kind of flimsy), and the first one I ordered was DOA, but when I contacted Targus, they replaced it with one I've used nonstop for months now.

I give the unit a thumbs up. Though it's a bit of a pain to move around (I have to remember to lift it from the bottom when moving my computer), it does what it's designed to do.

Anyone else have a favorite writing/computing gadget to share?

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Cooking with Colleen


This spring and summer, I've been following a recipe. A recipe I spent much of the winter crafting. I've listed my ingredients, know the preparation steps. I have what some would consider a good deal of experience cooking up this sort of dish, which happens to be another romantic thriller.

Yet I keep finding myself, as always, tinkering. I stick my spoon into the batter, make a face at the taste, and alter the components. Characters are added, deleted, and combined. Plot elements evolve, collapse, connect. At the halfway point, I have a lot of strong scenes, but the sum total doesn't hang together, and the ending I envisioned, no way that's going to fly.

And that's all as it should be, for a novel's not a cake mix. It's more of a Frankenstein, cobbled together from so many different parts to form a new and living entity. With luck and skill and a little of the pixie dust that causes the willing suspension of disbelief, the writer can disguise the lines where she has sewn the chunks together. But she can't predict the end result. Otherwise, why write it?

So when you write, do you plan in advance? If so, are you ever surprised by the final product? Or do you prefer to write without a recipe?

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